John Ashcroft’s New America

The Changed Lives of Arabs in the U.S.—And What a Declaration of War Would Really Mean

WASHINGTON, D.C.—As part of the Bush administration's promise not to send Arab Americans to concentration camps, the FBI has been holding sympathetic meetings with top Arab American leaders to guarantee speedy prosecution of any World Trade Center backlash hate crimes. "We have had a horrible relationship with the FBI," says Abdeen Jabara, an Arab American attorney in Manhattan and past president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, referring to harassment in the past. "So this is a positive step. Now they feel they need the support and cooperation of the Arab and the Muslim communities."

Nonetheless, with war fever running wild, Arab Americans—or anyone who looks like them—are easy targets. There have been 300 instances of attacks on Arab Americans since September 11, according to the Arab American Institute. Meanwhile, a special committee reportedly proposed to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta that airports be equipped with facial-recognition systems. As travelers go through security checkpoints, the systems would flash to law enforcement agencies, where they could be instantly compared to supposed terrorist profiles. Agents would immediately be dispatched to pick up any suspicious-looking persons. (In 1972, President Richard Nixon set up a task force called Operation Boulder. It required every person with an Arabic surname to undergo a security check before receiving a visa.)

This new security system might be coordinated through Bush's new Office of Homeland Security. The office will try to pull together the functions of 40 federal, state, and local agencies under one czar, Thomas Ridge, who'll be resigning his position as Pennsylvania governor to take the new cabinet-level post. The agency is also charged with developing plans to protect transportation, power, and food systems.

In order to combat terrorism, Attorney General John Ashcroft is asking Congress to let the government use wiretaps more freely, and arrest and deport people without warrants or hearings. There's congressional opposition to the legislation, but that's not stopping Ashcroft, who's already operating as if the new rules were in place. By issuing an emergency order, Ashcroft will allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service authority to hold people 48 hours (the current limit is 24), so as "to establish an alien's true identity." And he proposes to go well beyond 48 hours in an "emergency or other extraordinary circumstance." Thus, the INS could hold a person indefinitely without bringing any charges. Meanwhile, the government has stopped disclosing arrests of material witnesses in the World Trade Center attack, on grounds that it harms grand-jury proceedings. So the public will never know how many people in that category are being held. Initially, the Justice Department said it was detaining an estimated 115 people on immigration charges. When that figure was challenged by reporters, Mindy Tucker, the Justice Department spokesperson, told The Washington Post that the department will no longer issue any reports. Thus you could be held indefinitely on immigration charges and nobody would ever know it. And Bush himself, along with spokespeople for various departments, has introduced a basic information blackout on military operations.

The president's declaration of war against terrorists last week wasn't an official one. But if he were to make an actual declaration of war against Afghanistan or some other state, he could take steps to curtail civil liberties normally granted under the Constitution, principally habeas corpus. The only time this was previously done was by Lincoln during the Civil War.

"If there is a formal declaration of war, which there has not been, that does result in certain automatic powers to suspend civil liberties," says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "That's why it's noteworthy that when Congress was debating what became the joint resolution authorizing use of military force, they considered several variations in language, including two resolutions that would have been declarations of war. Congress opted not to go that route."

"There are no limits on speech under the Constitution," said Michael Ratner, of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Although, as a practical matter, this issue is determined by various courts. In general, they weigh the government's needs, as, for example, revealing where our troops are, but not much beyond that."

A declaration of war can grant the government power to seize "a wide range of businesses, manufacturing facilities, and obtain wire taps without any court order," says Strossen. "A state of war could also grant a government power to restrict otherwise lawful activity."

"Every time there's a war, there's a suppression of civil liberties, going way back," says historian Howard Zinn. "Take just the 20th century. When World War I started, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which put 1000 people in prison. They prosecuted a couple thousand, and in general created an atmosphere of fear. At the end of the war, people were deported without trial, aliens were picked up. Which is exactly the kind of program called for by Ashcroft—giving the government the right to pick up aliens without a judicial review and ship them off." The Cold War, of course, led to deprivations of civil liberties, such as loyalty oaths, people going to jail for refusing to talk to House committees, and the era of McCarthyism. Attempts to break the anti-Vietnam War movement resulted in conspiracy trials and the CIA spying inside the U.S.

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